Friday, February 15, 2019

A Shenandoah Valley Quilt Adventure
(First draft originally written in 1998)

It was a warm June day in The Valley. The blue sky was filed with large billowing white clouds. As soon as I parked my car and walked up the driveway, movement to my left caught my eye. My heart took a leap. There before me, stretched across two long clothes-lines, were 10-12 quilts flapping in the breeze. This, of course, is why I had driven the hour and a half to the Stony Man area of Page County near Luray, Virginia. Quilts! Quilts had been mentioned in an estate auction ad in the local paper. I had subscribed to this paper just for such an opportunity as this.

As the breeze lifted the first row of quilts, the second row appeared to be playing hide and seek. But one quilt leapt out again and again. You couldn't miss it. Its boldness was in such sharp contrast to the other quilts on the line. I looked at other items in the auction first, feigning non-interest in the quilts. What a joke. I had guessed from a distance that the "bold one" must be late 19th century, and upon closer inspection the fabrics proved me right. I was soon taking a dozen photos of the quilts from every angle.

There are always dealers present at such estate auctions, and I just knew they would go after this “bold” quilt; but, oh, how I wanted that quilt. It was the finest specimen of a “folk art” quilt that I had seen at any of the 5-6 Valley estate auctions I had attended. I had been pining for a really special Valley quilt for my very small collection for a very long time, one that I could afford. I have seen many in dealers’ hands but I was not prepared to pay $700-$1,500. To stretch my money, I would always try to track a quilt down at its source and get it ahead of a dealer.

The colors were bright and clear showing that the quilt had seldom been used, if in fact ever washed. Though there were a few stains on it that could have come from contact with wood acid over the years, the stains were small and didn't impair the visual impact of the front of the quilt at all.  The choice of colors very much reminded me of the bright “folk” colors I associate with the "Pennsylvania Dutch look" in the Shenandoah Valley: double pinks, cheddar orange, rusts, and cadet blue.

I started asking questions right away, trying to find out the history of the quilt's maker. Four hours later, when the quilts themselves finally came up for auction, I had met at least four distant cousins of the maker, as well as nieces and nephews of the owner of the house. I was told at the time by the relatives that I met that the quilts were made by the house-owner's mother, Nettie [Miller] Sours.

The sale drew many distant kin to the farm that day which helped me immeasurably in patching together the family history. I was finally able to gather the maiden names of the women of the family to the 3rd generation, a wonderful beginning with which to do further research.

By the time the bidding started on the quilts I had most of the story I needed to document the quilt. Now could I win the bid? I didn't want to go over $400, but I was psychologically prepared to go to $500. The bidding was fast and furious! I think 5 people were in on it initially, but two dropped out quickly. At $250 the one whom I guessed was a "picker"—because I had seen him buying large quantities of artifacts at other auctions—dropped out. Some believe that "pickers" will only buy if they feel they can turn around and at least double the price and still re-sell it reasonably quickly.  

Whew, at least the dealer was out of the race. But I had not won, yet. Another woman in the crowd hung in there and kept pushing the bid up. Luck was with me, though, for I finally won what I came to call "Nettie's Beauty" for less than the $500 I had been willing to go to! 

A Lucky Break

Nettie [Miller] Sours (above)

 During my interviewing earlier in the day, one of the cousins had pointed out a book to me that contained a newspaper clipping about Nettie. It was dated 1962.  Nettie was 81 years old at the time. Boy, did I want that newspaper clipping for my documentation! The only thing to do was stick around and bid on the box of books. The newspaper clipping was about her rug weaving. That's when I learned that Nettie was "famous" in that area of The Valley for her rug weaving, not her quilting.

When I finally realized I wouldn't be able to stick around to bid on one of Nettie' rugs or the box of books, I looked up the Executor of the Estate and asked her if I could make an outrageous request. I told her I didn't know what the rules of an auction were, but that I really would like to have that newspaper clipping...or at least a copy of it.  She asked me to show her where it was. I did and she gave it to me!

Several in the crowd congratulated me afterwards for winning the quilt. I had interviewed so many of them that they knew how much I had wanted Nettie's special quilt….enough to get much of the history on the maker ahead of time. I suspected they appreciated my interest in Nettie herself even more than my interest in her quilt. Several made a point of saying good-bye as I was leaving. That was unusual for I had been a stranger among them when I arrived and their friendliness left a very good feeling. I hoped I had left them with a sense that this quilt would be well loved and cared for.

Afterwards I continued to do research on Nettie in the genealogy archives at the Page County Library and continued to call and correspond with family members. After Nettie’s story appeared in the newsletter of the Genealogical Society of Page County in August 2000, I received an e-mail from Debbie Leon of northern Virginia, a great-great niece of Nettie [Miller] Sours. According to oral history passed down in Debbie’s branch of the family, it is believed that Nettie’s mother, Sarah [Pettit] Miller, made the quilt, not Nettie.

When you study all the quilts that were hanging on the line the day of the auction (see photos), “Nettie’s Beauty”, as I now call this quilt, was vastly different from any of the other quilts. Given that many of the fabrics in this quilt were from within the decade in which Nettie was born, it is quite logical that Sarah [Pettit] Miller, Nettie’s mother, could have made the quilt. The fabrics could certainly have been from either one of their scrap bags, if one assumes Sarah had passed down some fabrics to Nettie or that Nettie had made this quilt in her early teens and used her mother’s scrap bag. 

Hand quilting could possibly provide a clue, but unless I can track down other quilts known to have been made by Sarah [Pettit] Miller, I have no basis for the comparison of the hand quilting. The only other quilt I bought that day was a tied comforter with no quilting on it.

The puzzling part to me, however, was the 1962 newspaper article I obtained the day of the auction. It was all about Nettie’s rag rug weaving, never once mentioning any quilt making. That is another piece of circumstantial evidence that Sarah may have made the quilt, rather than Nettie. None of the other quilts on the line appeared as old as “Nettie’s Beauty” nor were any of them as intricately made.

 In 2005 I made contact with still another Miller descendant, Nettie’s great-great nephew Robert Riley, also of northern Virginia. He had his own memories of Nettie as well as stories he had heard passed down in the family, stories that didn’t always jive with what others had told me. But this can often be the case in families. Oral history often contains a grain of truth but may be unreliable as “documentable” history; but at least it gives you a place to start your research as a genealogist and quilt historian.

My favorite story from Robert was of Nettie’s skill with a whip.  His childhood memory of her was that of a tough, independent “mountain woman,” he told me.  Whenever she discovered a snake in her garden, she would “get her whip and snap the critter in two.” 

But for Robert, Netties' best trait was her personality. “She loved to laugh and tell stories and hear what city life was like as told by my parents. If she found something funny, she would laugh out and pull her apron up over her face.” When the family was planning to visit Luray, Robert explained, his mother would “write Nettie and ask if she needed anything. Her return letter would often request a fresh fish and a pint of whiskey.” According to Robert, Nettie Miller Sours died in her sleep at the home she and her husband Charlie had shared all their married life, and was “found in her own bed with her hands neatly crossed over her chest”.

So, did Nettie [Miller] Sours make “Nettie’s Beauty” or did her mother, Sarah [Pettit] Miller? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but both women will never be forgotten as long as Nettie’s story gets told and re-told each time this quilt is shared.

Sarah [Pettit] Miller (above with grandsons)
(Sarah is the mother of Nettie [Miller] Sours)

Research is always an open-ended, work in progress.

Description of Nettie's Beauty:

Most of this quilt is hand pieced. The exception is the backing and binding.
BLOCKS: 16 hand-pieced blocks; Size of block: 14 1/2 by 14 1/2
PATTERN NAME: variation of a Feathered Star (see pattern #2244b, 2245, and 2265 in Barbara Brackman's "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns," 1993).
BORDER: down two sides only, 3 1/4 : wide; pattern - variety of pieced triangles and squares.
BACKING: B&W check, turned to front for 1/4" BINDING. Back is in four pieces, 6 1/2", 18", and two sections of 24," widths machine sewn, as is binding.
SASHING between blocks 5" wide, with a square surrounded by triangles where the sashing meets. Also hand pieced.
OVERALL SIZE: 80" x 72 1/2" (roughly speaking).
PREDOMINANT COLORS: Rust, navy, double pink, cheddar orange; moss green ++ in each of the 5" blocks where the sashing meets.
HAND QUILTING: 10-12 stitches per inch counting top and bottom.
BATTING: thin cotton batt

The following are all the children of John Miller and Sarah Pettit Miller.

Mary Catherine Miller, born 24 Dec. 1867
William P. Miller, born 21 Mar. 1870 died 6 Oct. 1879 (Diphtheria)
Reuben Henry Miller, born 27 Dec. 1872
Sallie Margaret Miller, born 9 Dec. 1876 died 31 Oct. 1961
Casper Kinsey Miller, born 9 Jan. 1875 died 20 Oct. 1879 (Diphtheria)
Fannie Elizabeth Miller, born 29 Mar. 1880
Nettie Susan Miller, born 28 Apr. 1881 (m. Charles Sours)

Nettie’s Beauty has been exhibited at the following venues:

(1) Quilts of Virginia - October 2001
American Quit Study Group Seminar
Williamsburg, VA

(2) Celebrate Fairfax 
Fairfax County Government Center
Fairfax, VA

(3) “Hands On History: Quilts of Virginia”
June 7 & 8, 2003 Fairfax, Virginia

(4) Indiana Wesleyan University
Beard Arts Center
“Stitches Saved in Time”
Jan 31-Feb 25, 2005

(5) “Daughters of the Stars: Shenandoah Valley Star Quilts and Their
Makers” at The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, VA (Oct 2011-Jan 2012) 
(photo just below)

Articles or photos of Nettie’s Beauty have appeared in the following:

~The Vintage Quilt & Textile Society newsletter, April/May 1999

~Mountain Memories, the Newsletter of The Genealogical Society of Page County (GSPC), Summer 2000

~The Virginia Quilt Documentation Project, organized by the Virginia Consortium of Quilts, photographed "Nettie's Beauty" for their 2006 book Quilts of Virginia 1607-1899: The Birth of American Through the Eye of a Needle. You can see the photo on page 68 and 109 of the book.  The publisher said there was no room to run the story. (Indeed,, the publisher eliminated many of our stories in that book.)

~ Quilts in the Attic: Uncovering the Hidden Stories of the Quilts We Love, 2012, Voyageur Press (pg. 8-15). Chapter titled "Nettie's Beauty" written by Karen S. Musgrave based on my original article and research archives.